Monday, June 22, 2020

The World Will Not End if the Greens Vote No

It would be an exaggeration to describe the current state of Irish politics as being like three-dimensional chess. However, there can be no doubt that acey-deucey it ain’t. There are many balls in the air at the moment, and how they fall, and in what order, will determine what happens next.

This isn’t a fault in the system. If anything, it’s a good thing. It means that our politics is transitioning from the civil war structure that’s existed since the foundation of the state to whatever exactly it is that’s going to replace it. And while all this is going on, a government still has to be formed, taxes have levied, bills have to be passed, debts have to be paid – all the everyday housekeeping of politics.

Right now the formation of the next government hinges on the thoughts of the two-and-a-half to three thousand members of the Green Party, north and south of the border. The current dynamics within the Green Party are fascinating and complex, as outlined in the diagram.

Are the Greens an environment first, socially progressive second party, or a socially progressive first, environmental second party? Are they more pressure group than political party? What are we to made of the people who negotiated the deal voting against it, or the remarkable intervention of the Northern Green leader, Claire Bailey, MLA, yesterday?

Each of those alone is worth a solid thousand words. But the particular point of interest this morning is: what happens if the membership shoot the deal down on Friday? What then?

On the face of it, the Greens are conducting a remarkable experiment in popular democracy, and are being thanked very little for it. The Greens’ membership ballot on the program for government is utterly orthogonal to Irish political history and tradition.

Micheál Martin made a big deal of listening to grass roots when he became leader of Fianna Fáil, and has made a point of ignoring them in the nine years since. Fine Gael, bless them, never even bothered to pretend. The party that likes to tell the country what’s good for it also likes to tell its own members what’s good for them.

The question for the Greens is if this popular democracy renders the party incapable of practical action. In a nice piece of modularity, this is the Greens’ political dilemma too – does their commitment to Green issues mean that just can’t function in a country where people travel by car and burn turf and raise cattle?

If the Greens were a normal political party, the anti-deal positions of Claire Bailey and Francis Noel Duffy and Neasa Hourigan and the rest would be just so much theatre, like Ringer fulminating over Fianna Fáil perfidy at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis. These being the Greens though, they might put their money where their mouths are, and the system isn’t built for shocks like that.

Pat Leahy wrote a remarkable column in the Irish Times on Saturday, outlining the land of milk and honey that awaits the Greens if they pass the deal, and the barren and empty wastes that await them should they be so foolish as to refuse to eat their sprouts.

Coincidentally, this analysis is also the analysis of the Fine Gael party, who would see the Green’s failure to pass the deal as proof that all avenues have been exhausted, leaving An Taoiseach no option but to call another election.

Francis Noel Duffy told Gavan Reilly on Reilly’s On the Record radio show that he doesn’t see a second election as being inevitable at all. There are other combinations of parties available, many of which did better at the polls than either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, and are more ideologically suited to Green issues than Fine Gael in particular. If this deal is voted down, perhaps the President would ask the leaders of those parties to see if they could somehow form a government before admitting defeat and returning to the people?

One of Leahy’s pro-deal arguments is that if a second election were held, the Greens would be mashed by Sinn Féin. It’s not clear why this would be the case. Their bases are different and, while Fine Gael would damn the Greens as putting squirrels before people, the Greens can counter that if a party doesn’t have principles it has nothing. That’s an argument with a strong appeal. Also, the Greens would go into the election with a higher profile than they had in February and in a position to get some of that huge left-wing vote that went to Sinn Féin last time out, to say nothing of the Fianna Fáil carcass from which all parties and none will feast.

In point of fact, the Greens and Sinn Féin could form a transfer pact for a second election - "you voted for a left-wing government, but they wouldn’t let you have one. Vote for us now, and you won’t be denied this time. Transfer Left!" Pigeons, meet cat.

Your correspondent is not a member of the Green Party and has no vote on the program for government. However, If I did have a vote, I would vote against the deal. Not because I don’t think it’s green enough or because it doesn’t tick enough social justice boxes; the uncosted program for government is built on sand anyway, and what’s in it won’t matter a damn once the recession hits.

I would vote no because I don’t care for being threatened with terrible and immediate war should I vote in a way that doesn’t suit some people. Bullies have to be stood up to where-ever they are met.

The world will not end if the Greens vote no; it won’t be like a new Covid strain sweeping in from the East, or a no-deal Brexit, or a foot-and-mouth outbreak, or famine or penal laws or the return of Cromwell. It’ll be just a question of politicians sitting around a table and cutting another deal, like politicians are meant to do. Roll on Judgement Day.

Monday, June 08, 2020

On Trust in the Media

Sarah McInerney, talented columnist and rising RTÉ star, uncharacteristically missed an open goal in her column in yesterday’s Sunday Times. “Forgotten people fired up by out-of-touch press” was the headline on the column, and it seemed that McInerney was about to do what the Irish media are generally loathe to do, which is turn the spotlight on themselves.

Ireland is a very small country and, in a small field like journalism, you have to be careful about whose toes you tread on. This was always true, but it’s especially true now, as the media struggles for existence in the face of the all-conquering World Wide Web.

McInerney’s piece opens by remarking on US riot police shooting at journalists and then draws closer to home by writing of former journalist Boris Johnson’s disdain for a free press in what was once Great Britain. She wrote of the current President of the United States’s often-repeated assertion that the press is out of touch, and went on to examine if that is true in the Irish context. And here, sadly, Aughrim was lost.

McInerney cites two examples of the Irish media being out of touch. The first is the public anger at water charges bubbling over in 2014, which McInerney writes was not covered by the media because they were unaware of it, and the second is a list of influential Irish media people on Twitter that was published last week, of which McInerney notes 75% are white men.

Water charges. A Google Trends search for “water charges” in Ireland, from 2004 to yesterday, can be broken down geographically. This is what it looks like.

So we can see that water charges were very dear to the hearts of people in Lucan, Dublin, Limerick and Cork. The rest of country - meh.

By means of geographical comparison, we can do a search for “rugby”.

Everybody in Ireland is interested in rugby, and this interest peaks every four years, in keeping with the cycles of the Rugby World Cup. The rugby team gets the nation’s attention.

And finally, again for comparison, a search for hurling:

The hurling search is interesting for the absence of Dublin in first place. First place in the hurling searches is Thurles, County Tipperary. Dublin, despite its demographic advantage, is back in the chasing pack.

The point of all this is: water charges have been a huge issue in Lucan since Joe Higgins was elected in 1997, and a big issue in Dublin over the same time. Outside of those areas, nobody gives a toss about water charges.

Therefore, in identifying water charges as a hidden issue for the Irish nation, McInerney herself commits the sin she is here to condemn – not knowing the concerns of the people.

The influential journalist list is a bottle of smoke. It’s a good idea with any survey of this kind to consider how the runners and riders are scored. What is the fundamental unit of influence? If distance is measured in metres and volume in litres, what is influence measured in? The gasbag, perhaps? Does this gasbag unit increase in a linear, logarithmic, or exponential fashion? A brief glance at that influencer lists suggests this list was very useful in gaining its publisher publicity, and in no way otherwise was it of any merit. So that’s two swings, two misses for McInerney.

In his famous essay about the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe wrote often about the need for journalists to leave the newsroom and go out and meet actual people, to ask them about their lives and then return and type it all up. To what extent does the Irish media do that? To what extent do the journalists pound the streets and listen to the people?

For instance: it is a truism in Irish politics that blow-ins do not, and can not, get elected. What, then made the good people of Clare give Violet Anne Wynne 8,987 first-preference votes and a seat in Dáil Éireann?

For another instance: the heartbroken Kate O’Connell was a guest on Brendan O’Connor’s radio show after losing her seat in the election in February. O’Connell spoke of the reception she got on the doors during the campaign. It was terrible, she said. Nobody was interested in what Fine Gael had to say; as far as the honest burghers of Dublin Bay South were concerned, things could not get worse.

Now. If Dublin Bay South isn’t the most affluent constituency in Ireland it’s certainly worthy of a podium finish. And yet its electorate seem to think they’re in Stalingrad in 1943, eating their boots and waiting on the German bombs. Why? How could so affluent, so advantaged, so privileged an electorate think that? How are they so distanced from reality? And don’t tell me about Ringsend being in the constituency – Kate O’Connell no more visited Ringsend during the campaign than she visited Mars, the red planet.

For a third instance: one gets elected in Ireland by going on the stump. The personal touch. People like to see "himself". Funeral attendances win votes. How, then, could Patricia Ryan win 10,155 votes in Kildare South having gone on her holidays during the actual campaign? Feeding five thousand with two loaves and five fishes is run of the mill compared to this achievement. How did it happen?

If we are to have a native media, reporting and chronicling news and events relevant to Ireland, seen from an Irish perspective, these are the issues that should – that must – be reported on. That they’re not being reported on suggests an extraordinary systems-failure in the media itself, one that one billion tweets urging the little people to #buyapaper is unlikely to turn around.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

On the Matter of Government Formation

Deputy Micheál Martin told Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show of May 22nd that he expected the government to finally be formed by the end of this week. Not for the first time, the unhappy Deputy Martin appears to have missed the mark. The government is no nearer to being formed now than it was the day after the election, and the thoughtful citizen could do worse than to ponder why that may be.

The election will be 118 days in the past come Friday. Covid-19 or no, it’s ridiculous to suggest that all this time is being spent in negotiations to a common end. That process doesn’t take one hundred days. We do not know what is going on in those once smoke-filled rooms, and the political correspondents seem far too polite to ask, but negotiations are not going on. They cannot be going on if they’re taking over one hundred days to happen.

Your correspondent relies on the Irish Times, the Sunday Times, the Irish Examiner and The Phoenix magazine for his information. Close reading of all of the above suggests that the 33rd Dáil will never elect a Taoiseach; that the acting Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, will ask the President for a dissolution of this Dáil and another general election; and that all this will happen before the summer recess, rather than after.

The Phoenix has been forthright in its contention that Fine Gael are only interested in stringing out the talks. This certainly makes sense from Fine Gael’s point of view. Having first wanted to retire to their country homes with their football clutched tightly under their arm, the party now feels that the country finally understands how lucky it is to have them, and will be grateful to them over how steadily they have steered the ship of state through these terrible pandemic waters.

Fianna Fáil, the party that dominated politics in the state from 1932 to 2011, are dead, gone, kaput, over. If there were any sign of life in the party, Deputy Martin would have been defenestrated months ago. Fianna Fáil cannot face into another election with Micheál Martin’s face on the poster, and it looks like that’s exactly what they’re going to do. The soldiers of destiny are marching towards the Somme and oblivion.

Which brings us to the third hand in the reel, the Greens. Their has been general dismay among the commentariat over the Greens’ decision to heave their leader during these times of talks. It’s actually the best thing the Greens have already done and, like Napoleon’s victory at Marengo, it’s also the heralding of a new force to be reckoned with.

“Senior hurling” is the phrase most associated with the Green Party in terms of national politics, as in the Greens not being ready for senior hurling. The Greens are ready for it now, or at least, their leader-elect, Deputy Catherine Martin, is.

Fianna Fáil can look to Deputy Martin and weep. Martin, from the so-called Fianna Fáil gene pool, is doing what nobody in Fianna Fáil has either the talent, the will or the guts to do. She’s going to the back field with Old Shep, a shotgun, and a spade, and knows she’ll be coming back with only two of them.
Eamon Ryan, like Micheál Martin, is a dead man walking. It is impossible to conceive that Catherine Martin has not counted heads before allowing this happen, and there is no hope for Eamon Ryan. The future is already here.

Part of the shock among the commentariat seems to be over the fact that Eamon Ryan, like the Baroness in The Sound of Music, is getting the chop without ever having done anything wrong. Welcome to senior hurling, Deputy Ryan. Deserve has nothing to do with it. Gratitude has nothing to do with it. It’s all about want, want, want, and right now nobody wants it more than Catherine Martin.

The Irish Times ran a story on Saturday quoting anonymous sources on their impressions of the various participants in the talks. There was a description of Catherine Martin that is particularly worth noting. While Deputy Niamh Hourigan is voluble on the Greens’ different causes, Deputy Martin, according to the source, “sits there like a Sphinx.”

Have you been in many meetings, Reader? Trust your correspondent on this one; it’s the person who isn’t talking in the meeting that’s holding all the aces. Some lemon in the Green Party – they haven’t gone away, you know – disputed this characterisation of Martin as unfair. Reader, it was the height of praise.

So there we have the participants at the talks. Fine Gael, biding their time; Fianna Fáil, playing Weekend at Bernie’s, and the Greens, playing the long game. That dynamic would struggle to organise a bus to Leopardstown for an evening’s racing – if there were any racing, dammit. There’s no way it’s forming a government.

So the talks will break down, as they must. The Greens will go to the country under Catherine Martin, as Eamon Ryan may do a Sidney Dalton and go before he’s pushed. The Greens’ vote will improve under its marvellously-gifted new leader, with both the parties’ cores – the Range-Rover drivers of South Dublin, the donkey aters of the wild Atlantic way – both seeing themselves reflected in the new leader, and all parties and none outside those cores recognising in Martin someone with whom they can do business.

Sinn Féin will again make hay on their populist platform, a platform that Micheál Martin could have destroyed by simply talking to them, but whose effective ostracisation will simply have glamorised Sinn Féin further. Candidate selection will be the big challenge for Sinn Féin – getting enough to stand in the first place, and maybe sidelining a few of those loose cannons the last election turned up. If anybody should know how to bury a loose cannon, the Shinners should.

The Greens and Shinners will both feast on the FF carcass, and maybe Fine Gael will pick up a few seats as well. It’s possible the next government will be a Green / Sinn Féin coalition, with the Greens acting as a check on the hammer of Deputy Ó Broin and the sickle of Deputy O’Reilly.

It’s possible that the shocking nature of that new government, the first 21st-Century government of Ireland in its way, may be able to make the radical reforms the country needs. It’s possible, but not likely. The inertia of the vested interests will be too strong. The IMF will be back; it’s only a question of when. The hope here is that Irish politics will have matured sufficiently when the IMF do return to realise that electing the other civil war party is not real reform and the only way to judge a government is on how well it balances its books. It would be a shame to waste yet another crisis.